It’s that feeling again—you feel tense, anxious, and out of breath. Your heart rate increases and you begin to sweat. But what’s happening to you? You’ve heard people describe similar experiences as panic attacks and anxiety attacks.
But how do you know which kind of attack you are experiencing?
In truth, there is no such thing as an “anxiety attack.” At least not in a diagnosable sense. What people may be referring to when they say “anxiety attack” might be some of the symptoms of anxiety, which is a diagnosable condition.
However, it could also be a panic attack, which is a diagnosable condition that shares some common symptoms with anxiety disorders. Though panic and anxiety share some common symptoms, there are several ways to tell the two apart.
In this post, Klarity will do a deep dive into the panic attack vs anxiety attack question. We’ll explore panic attacks, anxiety symptoms, and their causes so you can better decide which condition fits your symptoms.
- What are panic attacks?
- What are “anxiety attacks”
- The relationship between anxiety and panic attacks
- How can you tell if what you are experiencing is anxiety or panic attacks?
- How you can treat panic and anxiety
So, is it anxiety or panic attacks? Klarity can help you find out by virtually connecting you with board-certified mental health professionals. Your mental health provider can help you find fast, affordable, and convenient online treatment for panic attacks or anxiety, if applicable.
All you need to do to get started is fill out our self assessment and we’ll connect you to a medical provider in your area in 48 hours or less.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is described as the sudden onset of intense fear accompanied by severe physical fight-or-flight symptoms—racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, pain in the chest, trembling, etc. They can occur even when there isn’t an apparent cause or perceivable danger.
It’s common for a person to experience one or two panic attacks during their lifetime. However, when these attacks are unpredictable, frequent, and disproportionate to the actual level of danger, they can negatively impact a person’s quality of life.
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What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks occur without warning, though sometimes a person can learn what triggers them. They can happen any time of day or night during any activity. Untreated panic attacks can be dangerous when operating a vehicle or heavy machinery.
Some people experience panic attacks frequently, while others experience them once in a while. Though they only last a few minutes, a panic attack’s physical and mental symptoms often leave the person feeling exhausted and fatigued for the rest of the day. Sometimes panic attack symptoms are so intense that a person may think they are having a heart attack or dying.
One of the most difficult aspects of having frequent panic attacks is the fear of having one during inappropriate or inopportune times. This may cause a person to avoid activities and situations where they might have a panic attack. Some people might develop agoraphobia or a fear of leaving their homes due to frequent panic attacks.
The mental symptoms of a panic attack are
- A sense of impending doom or danger, even when one can’t be identified
- An overwhelming fear of loss of control
- An overwhelming fear of death
- Feelings of unreality, detachment, disassociation
The physical symptoms of a panic attack can include
- Rapid heart rate
- Chest-pounding sensations
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Trembling, shaking in fear
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the back of the throat
- Hot flashes
What Causes a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an intense physical and emotional reactions that are thought to have genetic, medical, and environmental causes. Sometimes there is no clear trigger for why a person has a panic attack.
Other times, a panic attack caused by the fear of predictable or unpredictable threats—i.e., phobias. These threats might be imagined entirely (the fear of everyone on the street being out to get you) or could be real, even if unlikely (fear of dying in a hurricane, for example).
To draw a clear distinction, the DSM-V recognizes two types of panic attacks:
Expected Panic Attacks
With expected panic attacks, the cause or trigger is known. Usually, the person has a panic attack while performing an activity, task, or undertaking that has caused them to have a panic attack in the past.
Common triggers of expected panic attacks include
- Stressful exam or presentation
- Exposure to known phobias
- Certain social situations
- Traumatic triggers—exposure to events, people, or situations that cause the person to recall traumatic events
Unexpected Panic Attacks
When the panic attack has no known trigger or cause, it is considered an unexpected panic attack. According to WebMD, unexpected panic attacks make up 40% of all panic attacks in the US.
Risk Factors for Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
You are more likely to experience a panic attack if you
- Have a personal history of panic disorder
- Have a family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
- Have a history of drug or alcohol use
- Experienced trauma
- Experience a high level of stress
- Have a mental health disorder like an anxiety disorder or depression
LGBTQ+ people are twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders or panic attacks as non-LGBTQ+ people.
What is an “Anxiety Attack?”
“Anxiety attacks” are not a diagnosable condition, but anxiety disorders are. Anxiety disorders share many common symptoms with panic attacks. Additionally, a person can have anxiety and also experience panic attacks.
Confusion arises between anxiety and panic attacks because of shared symptoms and the fact that a person can experience both simultaneously.
However, the key difference between anxiety and panic is
- Anxiety is a general term that describes various illnesses that fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, whereas a panic attack is a single diagnosable symptom of a type of anxiety disorder—panic disorder.
- Anxiety is a gradual, always-present sense of worry, restlessness, and dread. It can last a very long time—months or even years. A panic attack is acute and last only several minutes (though it can happen rapidly, one after the other).
- Both share shortness of breath and rapid heart rate symptoms, but anxiety can cause muscle tension, insomnia, and irritability. On the other hand, panic disorders can lead to a sense of depersonalization and derealization (feeling disconnected from oneself and one’s surroundings).
Here are some anxiety disorders that can cause panic attack-like symptoms in people. Also, remember that a person with anxiety can have a panic attack and panic disorder too.
- generalized anxiety disorder
- panic disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- separation anxiety disorder
- agoraphobia (without previous history of panic disorder)
- post-traumatic stress disorder
What are the Symptoms of “Anxiety Attacks?”
Different anxiety disorders have different symptom profiles. For example, panic disorder, an anxiety disorder associated with panic attacks, is an anxiety disorder where panic attacks are a symptom.
To illustrate the difference between panic attacks and what is colloquially known as “anxiety attacks,” we will look at the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD):
- Feeling restless, on edge, or agitated
- Becoming tired easily
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
- Chest pain
- Muscle aches
- Unexplained pains
- Unable to control thoughts and feelings of worry
- Sleep disturbances—trouble falling or staying asleep
What Causes “Anxiety Attacks?”
Several factors might cause a person to experience “anxiety attacks.”
Childhood Experiences or Past Trauma
Stress and trauma impact the way children grow into adults. Difficult or traumatic experiences in childhood can cause a person to develop anxiety later in life.
- Physical Abuse
- Sexual Abuse
- Emotional Abuse
- Experiencing Racism
- Experiencing Sexism
- Experiencing Homophobia or Transphobia
- Losing a Parent or Loved One
- Being Bullied
- Being Neglected
- Experiencing Poverty
Life circumstances can cause an adult to develop anxiety symptoms.
- Social and emotional isolation
- Being overworked
- Being in debt
- Experiencing housing issues, such as homelessness
- Losing a job or career
- Losing a partner, significant other, or spouse
- Experiencing pressure to succeed and excel
- Experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Financial insecurity
Co-Occurring Physical or Mental Health Problems
Certain medical conditions can cause anxiety or make existing anxiety worse. For example, living with a chronic or terminal illness can cause a person to develop anxiety. Also, certain mental illnesses can cause anxiety, such as ADHD and depression.
Certain Medications, Drugs, and Foods
Certain medications or recreational drugs can cause users to develop anxiety symptoms.
- Various psychiatric medications can cause anxiety
- Some non-psychiatric medications can also cause anxiety
- Alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and nicotine (and their withdrawal symptoms) can cause anxiety
Family History of Anxiety
If a close family member has anxiety, you are more likely to develop one. More research is needed to determine whether this trend is genetic, environmental, or the result of both.
Treatment for Panic Disorder and Anxiety
Untreated panic or “anxiety attacks” can severely impact your ability to live a happy and fulfilling life and negatively impact your mental health. When untreated, these disorders impair your ability to function in day-to-day activities and can hurt your relationships at home and in the workplace.
However, effective mental health treatments for panic and “anxiety attacks” are available. Treatment plans usually involve a combination of talk therapy, antidepressants, relaxants, and self-regulating techniques. Here are several treatment options for panic and “anxiety attacks.”
- Medication: Various medications can be prescribed to help manage anxiety and panic symptoms, including antidepressants (e.g., SSRIs, SNRIs), benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers. A healthcare provider will determine the most appropriate medicine based on the individual’s specific needs and symptoms.
Dependency disclaimer: Certain benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, are classified as controlled substances due to their potential for misuse and dependence. Use of these medications should be monitored closely by a healthcare professional to minimize the risk of dependence and withdrawal symptoms.
- Psychotherapy: Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy can help individuals understand and manage their anxiety and panic symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one common approach that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors.
- Exposure therapy: For people with panic disorders or specific phobias, exposure therapy can help desensitize them to anxiety-provoking situations by gradually and systematically facing their fears.
- Support groups: Participating in support groups or group therapy sessions can provide individuals with a sense of community and a space to share experiences and coping strategies.
Remember, it’s essential to consult with a mental health professional to discuss specific symptoms and develop a tailored treatment plan. Treatment effectiveness can vary, and it may be necessary to try different approaches or combine multiple strategies to find the best fit.
Note, Klarity connects you with mental health professionals whose treatment recommendations may or may not include medication.
Providers on Klarity Can Diagnose Panic and Anxiety Disorders—and Get You The Treatment You Need Within 48 Hours
Aren’t sure whether your symptoms are the result of anxiety or panic, the board-certified providers on Klarity can help you get a diagnosis and anxiety treatment, if applicable.
All you need to do to get started is take our brief self-assessment and we’ll connect you to a provider in your area in 48 hours or less.
- No more waiting months to be seen by a doctor.
- No more missed time at work and lengthy commutes to in-network health providers.
- No medical insurance needed.
Klarity’s telemedicine service is fast, convenient, and affordable.
“Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
Carly Vandergriendt. “What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/panic-attack-vs-anxiety-attack
Jayne Leonard. “How do you know if you’re having a panic or anxiety attack?” Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321798
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Panic Attacks and Panic Disorders.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Anxiety Disorders.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961
Sheryl Ankrom. “Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: How They Differ.” Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/anxiety-attacks-versus-panic-attacks-2584396
WebMD Editorial Contributors. “Signs of a Panic Attack.” WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/signs-panic-attack